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The greats outdoors: Gertrude Hermes and the landscape ancient and modern

The revival of relief printing from wood was spurred by Paul and John Nash and later Eric Ravilious, but also many women artists. The most original of them was Gertrude Hermes.

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In the early 20th century, a cluster of British artists rediscovered the venerable technique of wood engraving. Although Georgian artists such as Thomas Bewick and William Blake had used it to create images of both delicacy and expressive power, it was a type of printmaking that had come to seem quaintly old-fashioned. Where etching and engraving, which offered greater refinement and tonal variety, were seen as an art, wood engraving was looked down on as being merely a craft.

However, in the years after the First World War, many artists – shocked by what they had experienced of the carnage wrought by the modern machine age – felt the lure of the traditional techniques and subjects they had once keenly sought to distance themselves from. They rejected the avant-gardism of the first decade of the century in search of something more stable to hold on to: the trend became known as the “return to order” and even Picasso, the founder of cubism, the most radical modern art movement, was drawn to it.

In this context, relief printing from wood, one of the oldest techniques of them all, seemed a logical choice. Among the artists who spurred its revival were Paul and John Nash and Edward Wadsworth, and later Eric Ravilious, but it attracted a coterie of highly talented women too, including Joan Hassall, Agnes Miller Parker, Clare Leighton, Gwen Raverat and Ravilious’s wife Tirzah Garwood. The most original of them though was Gertrude Hermes.

Hermes (1901-83) made this print, Through the Windscreen, in 1926 (it was released in small numbers and most are in private hands, but the British Museum holds examples), not long after leaving Leon Underwood’s School of Painting and Sculpture, where she had trained alongside Henry Moore and Eileen Agar. Moore was to remain a staunch friend and even camped in her garden with his new wife Irina on their honeymoon. But what makes the picture so unusual is that in it Hermes manages to be both thoroughly modern and traditional at the same time.

Here, old meets new: a tree-lined country road, formerly the preserve of carts, horses and trudging walkers, is brilliantly if briefly lit by the headlights of a motorcar. Modernity is not just passing through but is already planted there: the speeding car’s lights reveal a previously hidden world but also a row of telegraph poles mimicking the spread of the trees. It was only from the 1920s that roads began to be metalled, so the crunch of tyres on grit would not be heard for much longer. The old line Et in Arcadia ego – “even in Arcadia, here am I” – no longer refers to human death but to an encroaching world illuminating and then blotting out the past.

This is no simple elegy, however, although Hermes’s entire career as a printmaker was spent depicting the natural world. There is a thrill to the picture, as the 26-year-old artist recognised that this novel mode of transport showed the familiar world in a literal new light. She recognised too that the binary, monochrome nature of night was perfectly suited to her medium. There is pleasure in the contrast between the straight lines of the man-made objects and the curves of nature. And questions too: as the car barrels on and the trees flicker in and out of sight, what secrets are hidden in the wood? What lies in the dark to the left? What will be illuminated just round the corner? There is the tang of a Dornford Yates thriller to this nocturnal journey. But who exactly is driving the car, are they alone, where are they going and why? The narratives that play out in traditional landscapes – of bucolic love, of hunting, of agricultural work, of estates, cottages and manors – have been invaded by the internal combustion engine and figures trussed in driving goggles and gauntlets.

Hermes had tried out the theme in an earlier print of 1925, 2am (Windscreen), an altogether less accomplished image, which lacks the intricate skein of the incised lines of crossing headlight beams that gives the later print such delicate effects. It does, though, contain the hint of a gloved hand on the steering wheel, whereas in Through the Windscreen it is the mascot thrusting forwards that stands in for life as it flies through the night air. There is a touch of self-reference in its inclusion. As a sculptor Hermes modelled, among other things, car mascots: one similar small bronze of a swallow escaped the bonnet to be turned into a door knocker, later owned by David Bowie.

It was, in fact, her work as a designer and art teacher that sustained Hermes for much of her career. She created a mosaic floor and door furniture for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon; she invented weathervanes and book covers (including, in 1938, for Penguin’s editions of Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler and Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart); while in Montreal to escape the war – and possibly daily unpleasantness, since her parents were German – she worked in the drawing offices of shipyards and aircraft factories. She badly needed the money since her marriage to a fellow artist, Blair Hughes- Stanton, whom she wed in 1926, lasted only six years, leaving her a single mother. Fertility and maternity – the state of transformation – became regular, near-mystical, motifs in both her prints and her sculpture as she stuck resolutely to nature and its forms. With money tight, she would use a penknife to carve pebbles found on a beach and fashion sculptures from pub skittles. Her friend the Scottish novelist and poet Naomi Mitchison described her as “that wild girl Gert Hermes”, but really she was only doing what was necessary to live as an artist.

Although she exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibitions (the “widest shop window in the art world”) from 1934, Hermes didn’t become a full academician until 1971. By then she had already sat for many years as a member of the RA’s hanging committee: in a newspaper article of 1968 she was patronised as “a delightfully modest grandmother seven times over” whose home was “a council flat in Chelsea” but who, nevertheless, has a say in “what you will be seeing at the Royal Academy Show”. And while Hermes didn’t view herself as a feminist, she could not, as an artist, accept “sex discrimination in the world of Art”; and it was a letter from her in 1966 that prompted the RA to allow women academicians and associates to attend the annual RA banquet. “Better late than never,” she said on hearing the news.

Hermes was also a pragmatist, fully aware that everything, art included, has its own fashions. “You can’t be with-it all your life,” she once admitted, “there comes a time when you have to accept the fact that you’re square.” And she seems to have had little trouble in accepting it herself.

When, in 1969, she suffered a stroke that left her unable to carve, she treated the catastrophe with her habitual sang froid: “I think I’ve said all I’ve got to say, artistically.” These travails now give Through the Windscreen an autobiographical air: back in 1926, behind the wheel, it was Hermes in the car, bowling along that dark wooded road into her future.

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 21 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Failed